Getty Images/Treatment by Liz Coulbourn
In this op-ed, writer Rehana Nurmahi explores the careers of Charles Melton, Jacob Elordi, Zac Efron, and others in the context of how media teen girls like is often not given the respect it deserves.
On the Golden Globes red carpet, Natalie Portman was asked a question she and her May December costars have been asked several times before: Has she watched Charles Melton in Riverdale? It’s fun to speculate about whether Hollywood Veterans partake in the same “lowbrow” culture we do, but also, it seems that entertainment reporters — and our own psyches — keep looking to the past. We see the cast of The Iron Claw repeatedly asked the same question, but swapping out Riverdale for High School Musical. It gives us iconic content of Jeremy Allen White getting the lyrics wrong to “Breaking Free,” but it also provokes a bigger question than the ones being asked. At what point do we let adult actors stop being seen as the teen heartthrobs they started out as?
And sure, Charles Melton is best known to fans of the long-running teen drama as the archetypal jock Reggie Mantle. While we would love for him to be recognized for his experience of the epic highs and lows of high school football, it’s a very different turn that has garnered universal critical acclaim. In May December, Melton plays Joe Atherton-Yoo, the much younger husband of Gracie (Julianne Moore), who preyed upon and started a relationship with Joe when he was just 13 years old. When actress Elizabeth (Portman) comes to stay with the couple in preparation to play Gracie in a TV movie, their lives are turned upside down once more. It sets off a journey of self-discovery in Joe, as he realizes some hard truths about his life and marriage, and he begins to yearn for the childhood he could have had. While the story is original, it takes considerable inspiration from the real-life case of Mary Kay Letournau, a middle school teacher who raped and later married Vili Fualaau, her then-12-year-old student.
Melton’s depiction of Joe has been particularly praised for his ability to capture a grown man who is mentally stuck as his teen self. There is an innocence and naivety to Joe, even as a husband and a father to three grown children; Melton, who is 33, playing slightly older than he is feels irrelevant. In fact, it feels diametrically opposed to what we’ve grown used to from the 33-year-old, who spent the majority of his 20s playing a high schooler not only in Riverdale but in YA Lit adaptations like The Sun Is Also A Star.
Melton’s success, including his several award season nominations, has been treated as a huge twist, and while it was unexpected, it’s also not an outlier. He represents a continuing trend of teen heartthrobs breaking out of the mold of the media that made them to become critical darlings: Will Smith, Robert Pattinson, Michael B. Jordan, Penn Badgley, Austin Butler, and most recently, Melton, Zac Efron, and Jacob Elordi.
While Melton missed the longlist for BAFTA nominations, another teen media star crept in instead: Elordi, getting a nod for his role in Saltburn. With his current stream of indie films keeping him booked and busy, it can be easy to forget that Elordi had his breakthrough in The Kissing Booth films. Before Sam Levinson plucked him for Euphoria, Elordi’s name was exclusively a hot topic with teen girls. Now, he has acclaimed directors such as Guillermo Del Toro, Sofia Coppola, and Paul Schrader all excited to work with him.
Another former teen star to finally be taken seriously is Efron, whom many are calling for an Oscar nomination, for his heartbreaking turn in The Iron Claw. While the odds of Efron getting a nomination on January 23rd are less likely, the shift in the industry’s perception of him is tangible. Gone is the star of raunchy comedies like Neighbors. This isn’t the squeaky clean look that Efron sported in High School Musical. Instead, his portrayal of Kevin Von Erich reaches deeply into perceptions of masculinity, giving a performance that displays vulnerability and trauma with a deft clarity. Efron’s physicality is also crucial to his depiction: the star did intense wrestling training, completely molding himself into Von Erich.
The media attention for these stars inevitably discusses them in light of their back catalogs, but critics are focusing on just one aspect: the nominated work. Melton and Efron both wrestle with heavy themes in their respective films, and it is their performances alone that have lended to them gaining well-earned recognition. So why is it still hard for the general public to take them seriously?
There is a longstanding tradition of actors who made their start young, but grew up into the best talent the industry has to offer. And yet, every time another of them gets critically recognized, we hear the same comments. When Pattinson was cast in The Batman, hordes of angry men on the internet begrudged “that Twilight guy” taking on the role, as if Pattinson hasn’t spent the last decade becoming one of the most prolific art-house actors of today. It’s hard for actors and actresses to shake off the perceptions people had of them when they were young, and yet they keep rising into critical acclaim. Michelle Williams, a five-time Oscar nominee, got her start on Dawson’s Creek. Only Murders in the Building brought Selena Gomez into Emmys territory. Fellow Supporting Actor favorite, Ryan Gosling, was once dressing like a hamster on Disney Channel. Kristen Stewart went from Razzie Awards for Twilight to an Oscar nomination for Spencer. Zendaya danced her way from Shake It Up! to become one of the most respected actresses of her generation.
The problem remains that media for and by teenagers is still considered lesser — even though teen girls are nearly always predicting the next big thing, from BTS to Harry Styles to Taylor Swift. Still, the opinions and favorite shows, music, and movies of teenage girls are so often demeaned, simply by nature of being for that demographic. There is an assumption that anything young people enjoy must be talking down to them, and therefore, can never be objectively good art. Occasionally, this is true (sure, we all kept watching, but Riverdale certainly veered into… the chaotic). But there seems to be more grace for adult actors who make bad movies and shows, than for the young people just starting out and taking whatever work they can get (between The Kissing Booth and Euphoria, Elordi lived in his car for a week).
Further, picking a mixed bag of projects doesn’t make a bad actor; in fact, they can still demonstrate their talent, even amongst crap writing, cliched tropes, and less talented co-stars. Work aimed at young audiences doesn't have the grit of HBO series, but teen shows still require emotional range and full commitment from their cast, maybe even more so, as they ask actors not to take themselves so seriously. Stars who made their name that way have to work even harder to prove themselves, doubling their job.
In a recent interview with i-D, Melton said, “Riverdale truly was my Juilliard.” Michelle Williams expressed a similar sentiment when speaking on Dawson’s Creek, referring to it as “the best acting class.” We write off statements like this easily, but why shouldn’t they be true? Elordi — fresh off a Saturday Night Live hosting gig — might have some conflicted feelings about The Kissing Booth, but there's no doubting it helped get him to where he is now. A show like Riverdale requires regular suspension of disbelief, and the increasingly absurd storylines would challenge veteran actors, let alone ones who have done the majority of their professional growth on that set. Teen media relies on melodrama, because the breadth of emotions felt as a teenager is heightened. Being able to capture that tumultuous time in a fresh way, with the hindsight of having lived it, is a unique gift — and clearly Hollywood casting directors are paying attention to who young people gravitate toward early on.
While I’m sure the cycle will repeat itself, actors like Charles Melton and Zac Efron have worked hard for their moment in the sun and deserve to be treated as any of their fellow nominees are — and that means not overplaying the joke about their past roles in front of their Oscar-winning colleagues. It’s time we stop underestimating teen heartthrobs, and instead look at the glimmers of promise in their early performances — the signs that show that these kids are going somewhere, the signs that teenage girls have seen all along.
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue
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